Sept. 27, 2010
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
The 'Cat depth chart handed out Monday listed a pair of players for each position save one. That one, not surprisingly, was running back. Here we found Jacob Schmidt or Mike Trumpy penciled in as starter and, behind them, Arby Fields or Stephen Simmons penciled in as backup. "It just proves we've got four guys the coaches trust putting out there who can get the job done," Schmidt said of this anomaly, which gave meaning to the term Running Back By Committee. "So whoever's number's called has to be ready. I think it's better that we have four and that they have the trust in us to go out there and do the job."
How's that competition weigh on their relationships?
"We want everybody to do well because, at the end of the day, it's how the offense is run. We want the guy out there to do the best that he can," he said. "But, at the same time, we're all competitive, competitive people, competitive athletes, and we want to be that guy on the field making the plays. So we're going to help each other as much as we can. But when it's our turn we're going to do our best."
Are turns based on the situation or on who has the hot hand?
"It definitely seemed to be more specialized last year. Third down, that was kind of my down. We had Arby and Scotty (Concannon), first and second. This year it's more who's doing well that day, who's seeing the holes, who's making the plays. They're putting us in accordingly."
Trumpy, a red-shirt freshman from Wheaton North, is the newcomer to this Committee, a promotion he earned by netting 53 yards on 12 carries in the second half Saturday against Central Michigan. "I thought Mike ran with an attitude. I thought he ran hard. I thought he was decisive," 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald said in explaining the promotion. "I think in some of the previous games, some of the looks were very similar and we had maybe a zero gain or a negative (run). Mike just, there were a couple of runs where he got a one-yard gain or a two-yard gain that were his most productive runs because we didn't set ourselves behind the chains. It was second-and-eight instead of second-and-12, and those four yards are huge. Those are huge, huge differences in whether we can be successful moving the chains as an offense. I just thought his decision to be a little more decisive than we'd been across the board in the previous three games led us to have a bit more success running the ball in the second half."
Does Fitzgerald have any idea who's going to start this Saturday when the 'Cats visit Minnesota?
"Not you or me. That's all I know," he said with a chuckle. "We've got a lot of depth, so the guys are going to compete in the way they practice, and the way they play will determine the way we're going to go. It's a great position to be in as a coach. . . The competition is making that room better."
In the Gophers' loss last Saturday to Northern Illinois, Huskie running back Chad Spann shredded them for 223 rushing yards. (As a team, the Huskies rolled up 292.) Are 'Cat Committee members aware of that? "We are. We are," said Schmidt.
Twice against Central the 'Cats were penalized for illegal substitutions, which had nothing to do with them asking for pieroges instead of fries with their burgers. Asked Monday if he could clarify just what they had to do with, Fitzgerald said, "I'd like to. But I'm not quite sure. The perception that was articulated to me so we could coach our guys better is that we had 12 players on the field. We sometimes have 16 guys on the field as we're shuffling them in and out. We'll get some clarification, but it's never been an issue for us. The rule is about intent to deceive, you're loading your huddle with the intent to deceive. Well, number one, we don't huddle. And number two, we're going to be shuttling guys in and out. It happened and we'll educate our guys a little bit better and make sure we're doing the right things. . . I don't know. It's a judgment call."
What does he mean by clarification?
"I'll talk to them (the Big Ten office) later in the week. At the end of the day, we didn't change anything we've done for five years. So I just want to make sure we're coaching our guys the right way and substituting within the framework of the rules."
Fitzgerald was most-disappointed with the 11 penalties his 'Cats incurred while grinding out their sloppy win over Central. His second-biggest disappointment, he said afterwards, was their inability to make plays that were there for the making.
"We had a couple of missed interception opportunities. The ball was in our hands or the ball was tipped and we didn't intercept those balls," he enumerated on Monday. "We had a couple of 50-50 throws where we had a guy in position and we didn't make the play. We missed a handful of tackles because of leverage and lack of fundamental integrity. I thought they had a couple of throws on us because we weren't all on the same page. We had a couple of communication issues."
This was a new one, the defense struggling to communicate while playing before a friendly crowd at Ryan Field. But that is just what happened. "We had," said Fitzgerald, "some communication issues in our own house because of how loud the crowd was. That's a good problem. I can't remember that happening for a long time, so that's encouraging. But we've got to fix that as coaches. It's going to get harder and harder as we move forward in the Big Ten."
Where was the problem?
"It was on the field. It was in play, we were going from this (scheme) to that, we didn't hand signal well enough, the crowd was too loud. Like I said, it was the loudest we've had our crowd in a long time. It's good. It's a good problem. I can't remember the last time I had to use crowd noise before a home game to get our defense ready. So lesson learned. Bad coaching. We'll fix it for Purdue. But gosh, it's a great problem. I don't know if I've been as excited about that in a long time."
The defensive calls go verbally from the safeties to the linebackers and onto the line, which then signals back to indicate that the message has been received. "As long as we're on the same page, we usually do pretty well," end Vince Browne said Monday. "Big plays usually happen when we're not on the same page."
How'd it happen that they weren't on the same page?
"I think we got lackadaisical. We were taking the communication for granted," he said. "We started out well and then, like Coach Hank (defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz) said earlier this morning, the volume in your voice tends to go down and you get a little lax with that kind of stuff and when it gets loud, it hurts you."
In the 'Cats first three games, quarterback Dan Persa was credited with 33 rushing attempts. But he rushed a team-high 17 times (four were sacks) against Central, six more than his average. The reason? "It looked like they had pretty good coverage. They did some things pretty well in the back half. That's fine," said Fitzgerald. "If they're going to do that and drop seven guys and really get a lot of depth, Danny's going to make you pay with his legs. I thought he made some pretty good decisions and choices. It's one thing for a quarterback to get all caught up in the stuff we talked about earlier (Heisman speculation). It's more important for a quarterback to be a winner. And Danny's a winner."
"I missed a couple reads," admitted Persa himself. "But they were dropping pretty deep and that's a good way to keep a defense honest. If I can, I'm going to try and get five. I'll take five yards every time if I can scramble around like that."
Persa has started just four games, which makes him a veritable baby when it comes to experience. But, on Saturday, he was experienced enough to not make many questionable throws and then to say this on the sideline when asked why he had held onto the ball. "I didn't like the look."
"I liked that answer," said Fitzgerald after recounting the moment. "That shows some maturity. That doesn't show a guy trying to force anything, trying to win games on his own. It's a young man playing within the framework of the offense and managing the game."
"My biggest thing is taking care of the ball," said Persa. "If I don't like it, if I'm not sure, I can use my legs to get some yards and live to fight another day. I have the God-given ability to run the ball, so take advantage of it."
Here's one last piece of evidence that testifies to Persa's growing maturity. On Saturday, after often eschewing the slide in previous weeks, he slid often. "The first couple of weeks, I had more bumps and bruises than I wanted," he explained. "The coaches really stressed to me that I needed to take care of myself, it was a long season, and I tried to do that this week. It definitely paid off. I felt a lot better on Sunday. I didn't feel nearly as bad as I had the past few Sundays. They were right and I realize that now."
Check out the full Skip Myslenski NUsports.com Archive!
Be the first to know what's going on with the 'Cats -- Follow @NU_Sports on Twitter and become a fan of Northwestern Athletics on Facebook! Get the latest news, schedule updates, video and interact with NU. For more information on following specific Northwestern teams online, visit our Social Media page!